Once Upon a Time

When I was flying to England three weeks ago to begin a research trip before embarking on a cruise assignment, I found myself thinking about the most painful flight I ever took.  I was in Florence finishing a sabbatical in 1999,  when I got the nightmarish phone call that my son Adriano was dead. 

The struggle to get home at the Christmas season was horrendous. There were no flights from Florence so I took an overnight train to Frankfurt, the only airport where I could find a plane going to San Diego, carrying what I could fit in two suitcases and leaving everything else behind. A glitch at the airport  (I’ve forgotten what) resulted in a public meltdown I don’t think I have equaled since.  Then on the plane I spent hours  staring into space and crying quietly. 

I looked over and saw a young couple playing with their baby, who looked a little like Adriano at that age, and it ripped my heart open. Shortly before we landed, I saw they had changed him into a cute outfit, presumably to meet important people on the other end. It was exactly what I would have done. They were clearly besotted with their baby boy, and it brought back memories that even in my grief gave me a moment of recollected joy.  That young mother was me. That baby was my baby. It hurt, but it also gave me a moment to experience something other than the horror of how my story with my son had  ended. 

 I got to thinking about how time passes, remembering  that plane ride so many years later.  That baby would be twenty-five now. That mother is probably having hot flashes and fussing over her graying hair. And what about all the other people I have interacted with in passing?  The mother with the two little girls who was struggling to get through a flight alone, whom I helped by playing with her younger one?  That little girl would be in her thirties now.   The young orthodox Jewish man who was headed with his young children to Israel  is probably a grandfather now. The man with whom I ended up having a year-long love affair was enough older than me that I don’t know if he is even still alive.

And i—well, I am that many years older now too.  

I was thinking about time on a much grander scale when I visited the archaeological site of the Neolithic village of Skara Brae on the Orkney Islands a few days ago. This village was inhabited well over two millennia ago. At the time, every human being there was living in the moment, doing what needed to to be done, taking what pleasure could be had, and persevering through whatever pain life brought. 

It’s funny how relative the passage of time is. We are plopped into this world at a particular point and we go through our lives as if the only time frame that is relevant is our own.  I once heard someone say that for every person the year zero is when he or she was born and everything else is “the past.”  Likewise, I don’t think we can fully comprehend the reality that someday we will simply not be here at all.

That baby on the plane might be a father now, taking his baby to meet his grandparents, once the young couple on the plane. Their whole lives have been, and continue to be lived, while to me their reality is a moment frozen in time.   All the kids I went to school with are in their seventies now, if they have made it that long. I wonder if that’s part of the reason why people feel so ambivalent, or even negative about class reunions.  Perhaps it is too much of a shock to realize that other people have lived all those years too. 

There’s no lesson here.  We all just keep hurtling through space and time and occasionally we bounce off each other. Sometimes we contribute to the meaning that other people make of their lives. Sometimes we are lucky enough to make what feels like a lasting connection, even though in the  larger framework, nothing lasts. I guess we have to settle for that.